Temple of Void – Threshold of Excellence

Sunday, 12th June 2022

Ardent metalheads love getting into a band early in the game, watching the growth as musicians gain seasoning, experience, and confidence in their craft. With Michigan’s Temple of Void, the group releases their fourth album Summoning the Slayer on Relapse Records – a pinnacle, benchmark moment in the career ascension of this death/doom outfit. Quite an achievement for the five-piece, as this new album keeps their sound focused, primal, and sharp – continual challenging themselves with outside influences that twist into the Temple of Void style template. All in all, this is monumental and heavy – just as you’d expect.

We reached out to guitarist Alex Awn on a break from his day job, and he was very enthusiastic to fill us in on the work behind this record, signing with Relapse, what producer Arthur Rizk brought out behind the boards for the band’s sound, their affinity for their fans and special things they do to acknowledge them, plus thoughts on favorite records from Iron Maiden, Paradise Lost, and Machine Head.

Dead Rhetoric: Your fourth album Summoning the Slayer sees Temple of Void making the move up to Relapse Records after two albums on Shadow Kingdom Records. How do you assess the development of the group and this set of material – does it feel like you are taking many steps forward in terms of promotion and viability with the current output?

Alex Awn: Yeah, that’s the main reason to go to Relapse because they offer us a different platform as far as being able to get our music into the hands of more people. Everyone on the team – it’s nice to say we have that now, as on Shadow Kingdom it was Tim and some hired guns that were involved. At Relapse it’s a full-time staff of people who are responsible for European press, social media, production – and they are all really invested in the band. To co-create together and push something that both parties are really happy with. We have a good working relationship with those guys. We are super happy to work with enthusiastic metal people.

Financially we were not able to go out of town to record, for instance. We recorded all of our previous stuff in Detroit. With Relapse, we were able to go to Philly and record with Arthur Rizk, and that’s something that was exclusive to Relapse. Same thing with the music videos – they were always done very inexpensively, sort of bubble gum through a friend with a Go Pro type of thing – and they always looked better than what you would actually find out (considering) how much they cost; they are still very low budget. Being able to work with Relapse, they were able to give us a bigger budget for videos. It’s enabled us to be who we are, just with more cash in our pockets to be able to splurge on a couple of things, like a better video or a better producer.

Dead Rhetoric: Do you believe the extended down time off the road due to the pandemic allowed the band to really dig deeper into the finer details of the new record – and maybe be more critical of what works and what needed reshaping or retooling?

Awn: I don’t think so, because typically we have a very high bullshit meter. Nothing gets past us that we are not all thoroughly excited about. It never gets phoned in. It allowed us to not have any distractions, but whether it took us eight months or a year, at the end of the day we have the same high threshold of excellence that we are looking for with one another. What happened in the past though, if we tried to write an album and be a live band, because we only practice once a week, it gets distracting. We can’t write stuff because we would have to practice to get ready for the show, that puts you behind the schedule. Are we writing an album, or are we playing shows? It gets frustrating to have momentum and then have it shift. We decided for The World That Was we would take a year off, write the album, put it out and tour. We did that, and then coronavirus happened. So, we didn’t get to do the tour part, we went right back into writing mode for a new album. We took about eight months to focus on writing. In the future when doing an album, we just need to say no to shows, so that we can focus on writing. We need to be either in show mode or album mode.

Dead Rhetoric: Are there times where during rehearsals you take ideas and expand on them when you get into this writing mode? You never know when the energy comes to you to be creative, and ideas can come at any point – so do you stockpile those ideas when it comes to writing?

Awn: Yeah, we have a Dropbox folder, and Don (Durr) and I would just write riffs and drop them into this folder. We would get together at my house, go through the folder, and I like this riff, you like that one – we would look at putting riff A with riff G, or something. He and I would figure out from there what we wanted to bring to practice. We are always feeding that folder and figure out the keepers that get us both excited. We would bring that to the band, and then at the next practice ask them to check this out.

Dead Rhetoric: Were there any songs on the new album that seemed more of a challenge to the band than others?

Awn: Yeah, “The Transcending Horror” was one that took a while, to figure out the verses. Sometimes, we kept working on the verses for that one. Sometimes it’s one of those things where you go into the studio, and you still need to iron something out, you’ll figure it out in the studio. There’s typically one song per album where we are 80 to 90 % there, and say someone in the band is the detractor, hemming and hawing a little bit. That was the one, we knew we needed a little bit of work on it. When we got to the studio, we experimented with it and sometimes things take on a different sort of candor, ambiance, or feeling when you are in the studio and hearing it back. Don would write things, we would hear it and then come back to our air b+b late at night, we would record other stuff. We were all happy with where we got that song, it’s probably my favorite song on the record. Sometimes when you tweak things, that’s where the magic happens.

And there is another one, that will be on a split. It’s nice, for this record and the last one, we wrote one extra song to force ourselves to have to make a tough decision as to what makes it and what doesn’t. We like a good forty-minute album, for repetition we like a single LP more than a double. We had more than what we needed, we took one of our favorite songs last time and gave it to the Decibel magazine for their flexi-series. It’s not that we didn’t like it, we wanted to make that tough decision. Same thing for this one, there was another song that will come out on a split 7 inch, and that took a long time to really get it into a place where everyone really liked it. It would have been great to put on the album, but you can’t put them all on there. That was the first song we worked on, we kept on coming back to it. Most of the rest of the songs felt relatively speedy I would say.

Dead Rhetoric: What did you enjoy most about working with producer Arthur Rizk and his approach with the band? Are there specific areas you think he brought the best out of you guys as musicians and players?

Awn: He’s very chill. I liked his attitude, his personality and perspective – he kind of just fit in with us. He was a mellow dude, so we get along. His sense of humor was really important, just from a relationship perspective he helped us feel very comfortable. The thing that I think he elevated was certainly the bass guitar. I never really felt like we had a great bass tone before – and he definitely took the drums up a notch too. He is a drummer, the attention to that. The rhythm section was something never that I would say was bad in the past, it was more like what we could do. There was a ceiling for what we could do production-wise in Detroit, and we were able to bust past that glass ceiling with Arthur. I was really happy with the drums and bass. He put a lot of clarity to everything. He nailed a really strong balance with just how the different layers ebb and flow, come in and out of one another. He had a good touch to weave all the layers, they are pretty textural songs with a lot going on, synth and guitars and all that stuff. Bringing forth what was important at any given time. I think that’s what he brought to the table.

Dead Rhetoric: And what did you want to achieve with the cover art this time?

Awn: That was a direct relationship or conversation piece with The World That Was. On that album you have the boat going into this massive mountain, fiery mountain, five guys in this boat. The question was, what’s inside that mountain? We depicted this in Summoning the Slayer – when you see the artwork, it’s actually a four-foot-long scene if you get the LP. Most people when they see the cover, they get a twelve-by-twelve cover – but when you open up the LP, it wraps in the back as well as the inside. It’s one big painting, we wanted to tell the story of these guys entering the mouth of the cave, traversing the river and what they find at the end is this monster.

Dead Rhetoric: That must offer great possibilities when it comes to different visuals for merchandise, people wanting the physical product and the attention you put as a band into those special details…

Awn: The other thing that you asked about the artwork, there’s a relationship between the artwork and the music as we have this sort of caveman ambience that permeates the whole record, so there is no dead air in it. You are starting on song one, and as it ends you hear this cave ambiance, and that’s your boat making its way down to track two, and each time you hear this ambiance it’s the listener getting further into the artwork. You can chart it along. That direct relationship between music and visuals, we really brought it together on this record.

Dead Rhetoric: Crossing genres such as death and doom metal, are you conscious at this point to know when to delve deeper into either direction to make the ideal Temple of Void composition – or do you take things on a case by case, composition by composition process?

Awn: I look at it from a macro level, from an album level. I only care that there is enough death and enough doom on an album level. On any given song, it doesn’t matter – it could be 100% death, it could be 100% doom, it could be 50/50. It doesn’t make a difference. As we go through the songwriting process, song one, song two – if we are three songs deep and there isn’t a lot of death metal riffing, we put the effort to write some death metal riffs to make sure we are checking that box. Or vice versa, to infuse some more doom riffs. At a songwriting level, “Hex, Curse, & Conjuration” is just four minutes of pure death metal, and that’s perfectly fine.

Dead Rhetoric: Is it the same thing you think about with the vocals as well?

Awn: The vocals are a great enabler for us, from a guitar perspective, because Mike (Erdody) can put death growls over everything. I can pretty much write anything and it’s going to sound heavy because Mike does his death growls over it and Jason (Pearce) does his caveman-esque drumming. There are moments on the record where I was writing stuff that was influenced by Quicksand or Radiohead, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins. But I knew by the time I was hearing Smashing Pumpkins in my car to my fingers to his growls and his drumming, it would be a long way from Smashing Pumpkins. It allowed me that creativity. If Mike thinks something deserves clean vocals, then he does it. We don’t weigh in on that – we let Mike make those decisions.

Dead Rhetoric: When looking at the benchmark moments for Temple of Void at this juncture in your career, what are some standout moments – either specific albums, tours, shows/festival appearances or anything else when you knew you were making an impact with your music and rising to another level of respect or success?

Awn: It would be release oriented. The first time that anyone wants to invest their time, effort, money, and resources to promote what we do for fun and for art, is something that we never take for granted. Whether it’s an Indonesian tape release of 50 copies or Relapse, someone else is taking a chance on the band, taking a chance on us, and we do this for fun. I play guitar at my friend’s house for fun. If they aren’t going to put it out, I’m not going to put it out myself. We rely on labels; we rely on other people thankfully enjoying what we do for fun.

Those moments continue to happen each time we put out a small release, or a large release. The first album coming out, our first deal was 300 copies of the CD on a small German label. And then from there it got picked up by Shadow Kingdom, they did the re-release. Each time we got a new label involved, there is this affirmation. Relapse is a huge boost for us. If you had asked us ten years ago what label we would have wanted to be on, that would have been the first label out of our mouths. For that to finally come true, that was great. We just played fourteen shows in Europe. In recent memory, playing that territory was a huge check box. I am sure there have been individual shows where we have had significant responses from the crowd. I would have to dig through the archives to see which shows.

When we got signed to Shadow Kingdom, it was before the first album came out officially. Which was another thing – it was out for pre-order and then we got signed by Shadow Kingdom. That was cool – we had the next step up within 24 hours. We sold out the first pressing of Lords of Death in pre-sales. Each time we do a sell out of a pressing of the records, it feels like a huge check. On Shadow Kingdom, most of his pressings are one and done – he didn’t have a lot of bands that did more pressings. When we were on our third pressing of an LP, that felt like we are really doing something on that label.

Dead Rhetoric: How does the band handle satisfying your own creative tastes and desires while also appeasing what many of the Temple of Void followers want to hear from you album to album? Do you believe looking outside heavy music influences are necessary in order to develop fresh thoughts and innovative elements to your style?

Awn: I don’t want to say this in a rude manner, but I don’t want to say we don’t care what anyone thinks. We love our fans; they are integral to the band. But we never consider our fans ever when we are writing music. It’s art, and fun that we do for the five of us. We are appreciative of the fans or labels that like what we do – but the thought of a fan might like this, therefore I will or won’t do it, has never came across our minds or mouths. We are fortunate that what we like resonates with other people. We have gotten as far as we have gotten just by being true to ourselves and putting out art we enjoy. And a lot of people like it, which is cool – so we are going to keep continuing what we do, with no aspirations outside of fulfilling our own creative endeavors and whims.

Considering what other people like would be the definition of selling out. Compromising what you want to do to satisfy somebody else, I’m not creating art anymore. I’m at work right now, taking a pause to do this interview. We have full-time jobs and careers, and zero aspirations of being full-time musicians. As long as we are enjoying what we are doing for ourselves, I write for me first, and then for the other four guys in the band. Everyone has that same perspective.

I definitely think the outside influences are critical for us to be creative and innovative. They are the backbone of what makes us unique and have the Temple of Void sound. I dislike carbon copy type of bands. There is a place for them. A lot of people like the sort of AC/DC, Motörhead type of approach. They want more of that, listen to their whole catalog or bands that rip off that style. And that is how the old school death metal thing is – if you like it, you like it, you want ten bands that sound like that. I don’t. Over the weekend I have been rocking a lot of Kate Bush, post-punk, goth, and very little death metal at the moment. And grunge. A lot of the outside stuff, it’s where we get ideas from. “Leave the Light Behind” for instance, if I played that clean, there is no chugging or trem playing from my side, it could be a post-punk song if I had a different guy singing on it. Because it’s Mike and Jason, it gets heavier.

Dead Rhetoric: What are your thoughts on social media and the connection you have with the fans – is it a blessing as well as a curse sometimes when it comes to keeping the brand of the band top of mind?

Awn: Yes. I love it, because I love the reciprocal joy it can bring to people. It’s our brand, I run the Facebook, Brent (Satterly) used to run the Instagram, now Jason runs that. We always like, comment, heart this, reply to things, have jokes, and develop conversations with people offline. That makes people feel connected to the band. Given that we don’t tour very much, it’s the easiest way for us to reach people, and have that fan engagement. They can message us and know that we are going to write them back. It’s really good. On the last two albums, we’ve looked up the top supporters on our Bandcamp and listed their names. We didn’t call it out, there are people who have spent hundreds of dollars on our Bandcamp. We pull the Excel file, see who has spent lots of money, and they will get individual shout outs in our thanks lists. They didn’t do that knowing they were going to get on that list, but it’s the best way for us to show thanks. They didn’t have to buy every edition of things we put out, five copies of the LP, and they do consistently. They will catch that. If I opened up an album and my name was on a thanks list for a band I respected, I would be blown away as just some guy who bought something because I loved it. It makes them super loyal, it’s what is the least amount of appreciation we can offer, as we don’t want to take this for granted.

Dead Rhetoric: What would surprise people to know about the band and the inner workings of Temple of Void? How do you manage the band activities, business activities, and maintain solid friendships/relationships that are productive and healthy outside of the band?

Awn: I’ve known a lot of the guys for a long time. Some of them, our history goes back forever. I am a businessman; I am sort of the manager of the band. I bring a lot of spreadsheets, Google Docs, and efficiency to the band. Just that leadership, management, that you get in the white-collar environment, I bring that structure to the band. I run the band like a business. I don’t run it from like a cynical, financial perspective, but more from an operational perspective. I’m the main point of contact for emails and that kind of stuff, Facebook, someone else does order fulfillments on Bandcamp. We have our roles and responsibilities. We run the band very professionally for a non-professional band. And that’s just how I approach life, I guess. I can’t help but take charge from an operational perspective. It keeps me sane, I like lists, knowing something is checked off, done, and moving on to the next item.

We don’t see each other all the time, we see each other at band practice once a week. Like any other band, we have a text thread, and we talk with one another. It’s the band that really keeps us connected and having fun together.

Dead Rhetoric: What are three of the most essential albums in your record collection when it comes to heavy metal?

Awn: Three records in heavy metal. Iron Maiden is the first thing that comes to mind. Probably Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Just because that was one of the earliest metal records I got into. I was drawn in by the artwork, the video, Maiden became for me the ultimate blueprint for what metal was all about. Having a consistent logo type, having a mascot, that was something I’ve employed. Even Derek Riggs’ little signature, I know it’s not a Maiden icon. Same thing with the Misfits having the crimson ghost, like logos are important. Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, the Misfits – these easy to draw logos are important. Hellmouth and Temple of Void, whatever I do next, I want that consistency of the logo. Some sort of thing you could tattoo on yourself. Branding is important, and the immersion you would take into an Iron Maiden album. Looking at the gatefold.

I think Paradise Lost – Icon. That’s no surprise to anyone that we love Paradise Lost. Icon from like that era of my immersion in music, it felt so weighty and dour, gloomy, atmospheric, and thick. It felt monumental, that record is responsible for Temple of Void in a certain level. And I will throw out one that people will maybe pilfer me for, but I don’t care – Machine Head – Burn My Eyes. I absolutely love that album. They have two other maybe good records – but that album is the ultimate production. It’s 1994, before everything was Pro Tools, autotuned and everything. It’s crisp, so heavy, so clear, but not sterile at all. Colin Richardson, who did Carcass- Heartwork, it’s so good. I love the fast beats on it, they only do it in a couple of songs, but the fast beats are incredible. The best thrash you have ever heard, awesome solos, “Davidian” – the breakdown at the end of that song, the ultimate breakdown of music. I love that album, just how it goes up and down. It’s super intense, and so many times where Don and I reference Machine Head at band practice. Rhythmically what they are doing with those guitars, it’s so great.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s next on the Temple of Void agenda over the next year or so now that things are starting to open up on the live front? And where would you like to see things develop for the band over the next few years?

Awn: We are taking things very day by day. It was a lot of effort leading up to going to Europe. We had a couple of guys who didn’t go to Europe for vaccine reasons. Mike had to learn all our guitar parts, and do double duty as guitarist/vocalist, and we had my buddy Justin do bass. We went as a four-piece, the lead up time between January and April, was intense. It was a lot of effort, time away from my family, and then we were gone for two and half weeks. Once we got back, and simultaneously I started another band and we were going into the studio to record an EP, I had this one thing going. It was a very busy first half of the year. We played fourteen awesome shows, so we are taking a break. We will see what happens later in the year. We have to see what time we have back on our PTO schedule for work.

We need to do release shows – we didn’t do one for The World That Was or this album, those need to happen. We need to play a show on American soil, we haven’t done that since December of 2018. We are well overdue for playing here. Over the next years, I want to go into writing mode in 2023. I think it’s just a matter of expanding the creativity. With each record, the fans are coming along with us on a journey. It’s great to see fans open to that. I’m sure at some point, some people will check out, you can’t please them all. I think we will bring more outside influences in, to see if we can be more unique in the death/doom that we produce.

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